"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Brad Berens, executive director of the Santa Clarita Valley Committee on Aging. The following interview was conducted Aug. 26. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Tell us about the big fund-raiser for the SCV Senior Center that's coming up Sept. 11.
Berens: I'm glad you brought that up because it's actually our mainstay in fund-raising each year. We're absolutely dependent upon it for one of our programs, our home-delivered meals program.
Signal: The event, of course, is the Wine Auction.
Berens: Yes. Sept. 11 at Le Chene (French Cuisine restaurant), thanks to Juan Alonso. Years ago Juan and Jo Anne Darcy set it up as our major fund-raiser, and it's been going gangbusters ever since. The primary purpose is to raise funds for home-delivered meals. (There are) roughly 300 to 400 home-bound individuals each year who, by virtue of disability, chronic disease and other factors, typically 75 years old or older, live alone (and) have the need to receive meals from us each and every day.
Signal: Your staff at the Senior Center drives meals out to these people?
Berens: Seven or eight routes, depending on how many each day. Three hundred meals per day go out to these individuals in a 450 square mile area, actually the second-largest territory in the state of California for this particular service.
Signal: Do you bring them three square meals a day?
Berens: No, it's just one per day. The regulations are, it should be just one-third of their daily dietary needs, but of course we pile it on pretty good to make sure there are (some) leftovers.
Signal: Do participants pay?
Berens: (There is) a suggested donation $2.50 per meal, on average, depending upon the individual who's receiving the meal and their means to donate back. We get on average about 76 cents. We lose about a $1.25 per meal served, and it has gotten a lot worse in the last couple of years, which makes the Wine Auction even more imperative to us with the cost of gas, food costs going up, insurance for the cars, health care for our employees, those sorts of things. Our deficit has doubled in the last couple of years.
Signal: So the $1.25-per-meal deficit is what you're hoping the Wine Auction will offset.
Berens: Absolutely. That, and the fact that we typically run out of funding in about the middle of May. So in addition to that gap in funding, we still need to make up six weeks' worth of our ability to deliver those meals.
Signal: What are people in for, if they go to Le Chene on Sept. 11? When does it start?
Berens: 11 o'clock, doors open, registration, silent auction, wine tasting. Trader Joe is putting on the wine tasting, wine and cheese. From there they can meander out and do the silent auction. It's on the estate of Terry and Brenda Beeler, which has made the event even more terrific in the last couple of years because it's several acres of tree-lined, grassy meadows, a lake, what have you. It's just a marvelous place to go and imbibe a little bit.
Signal: And then you auction off
Berens: The live auction Juan normally handles; (it's) wines that he has procured from around the world. (Bidders can) get these rare wines for pennies on the dollar. (The live auction) goes from about 1 o'clock till 3. And there's always some things mixed in: trips, large-ticket items. I think this year, our largest one is, 50 people are invited to Alfred Mann's house, the scientist, and he'll put on a full spread and let them stay several hours at his house, take a tour of his mansion, what have you.
Signal: How many years has the Wine Auction been going?
Berens: This is our 13th year. Hopefully it's lucky 13, because we desperately need the money this year.
Signal: Sept. 11 is an interesting date to pick.
Berens: Well, with everything going on in this town, we pretty much were caught. We knew we wanted to do it in September, but we've made kind of an American-picnic theme out of it to pay homage to Sept. 11, but also to kind of turn that memory back into what is Americana and what we stand for, and in this case, we're hoping people will come out and support the needs of the elderly in the community.
Signal: How much money does the Wine Auction raise?
Berens: In the last couple of years it has been roughly $90,000 to $100,000, after expenses. It's truly a Godsend.
Signal: Has it plugged the gap?
Berens: It has plugged the gap, and what it has allowed us to do is, in years past, in addition to plugging the gap, have an extra case manager who can go out and check out on these folks more frequently. That also has been imperative. We save several lives a year by our home-delivered meal drivers who are checking on them daily. (We make) daily telephone reassurance phone calls to the folks, and then our case manager is visiting them at least once every two weeks. And literally two or three lives were saved last week by the frequency of us visiting these isolated and home-bound people.
Signal: There was a recent story about one of your drivers discovering someone in an awkward situation.
Berens: Yes, just recently. She'd fallen and broken a bone and lied there all night. (The driver) searched the house, didn't find her, and then went out to the back yard and fortunately saved her.
It's a wonderful program, and just one of the many of the things we do that allow our older, more frail people to stay in their homes. ... Out of the 300 or more home-bound individuals we serve through a variety of programs, the meal program being one of the core (programs), we're preventing them from being institutionalized in long-term care facilities. ... The average cost of long-term care is $3,000 a month, so by my figures, if 150 of those people are kept from being institutionalized each year, we're saving the taxpayers well over $5 million a year.
Signal: Speaking of tax dollars, many people may assume the Senior Center is government-run. But it isn't, is it?
Berens: No, we are a public nonprofit, public benefit organization. (We do) fund-raising; we do have contracts through the county, although small, for certain services, and the bulk of our funding comes through the federal Older Americans Act, which is a pass-through to the county of Los Angeles and then (the money is) spread out through the L.A. County area.
Signal: The "we," of course, being the SCV Committee on Aging, which runs the Senior Center. Who is the Committee on Aging?
Berens: We founded it in 1976. It was a group of individuals Russ Cochran, Barbara Stearns-Cochran's husband, was instrumental in forming the organization by 1976. I remember at that time dating someone up here and realizing it was a very, very young community. But they realized the need was coming. ... I started in 1991 well let me (go) back the Committee on Aging is the umbrella organization that is in charge of policy, fiscal management and what have you, and the Senior Center is just one of the programs that we run admittedly the largest (it) is a multi-purpose center.
Signal: So you write grants to various government and private agencies to fund all the different programs?
Berens: Exactly. We have a spectrum of programs, well over 100 distinct services, and last time I checked was a couple of years ago it was the largest spectrum of services for seniors in the state of California.
Signal: What year did the Senior Center open?
Berens: (In) 1976 it was founded.
Signal: Same time as the organization.
Berens: Right. And at that time, services were small and limited. In fact, at that time it was mostly home-delivered meals and congregate meals and now has grown to provide adult day care ... 60 different recreational educational programs, specialized programs for the visually impaired, transportation we have a large transportation fleet that covers the valley. Our transportation system provides for the elderly and disabled. It goes to Acton, Agua Dulce, to the Kern County line, and to the north San Fernando Valley when needed, as when veterans need to get down to the hospital and things like that.
Signal: Do you pick up people and bring them to the Senior Center?
Berens: Well, we do that as well, but one thing that we've worked out very well with ATC Vancom and the services that the city provides is we noticed a long time ago that their system was overburdened, the Dial-A Ride system. So as we kept developing our transportation system, we would concentrate on going to senior housing complexes and take group rides, shopping, those sorts of errands they need to do, where we take 10 or 15 at a time, the theory being that this would then lighten the load of Dial-A-Ride where they could then respond to more on-call, response-type needs. And that has worked out very well. I know that we provide about 30,000 trips per year and between Dial-A-Ride and ourselves, in one of the most difficult locales, too, in southern California. We do a pretty good job of accommodating most everybody.
Signal: How does your square mileage compare to others?
Berens: The largest in the state of California, to my knowledge, is the Antelope Valley, yet they don't have the full spectrum of services that we have. They spread over the largest distance, but in terms of comprehensive service delivery, we serve the largest territory.
Signal: If there are about 300 people in the home-delivered meals program, how many people do you serve overall?
Berens: In 1991, when I first began, there were roughly 1,800 people coming for services. And this will give you an idea of how the needs of our elderly have grown: Today, our agency serves, through one service or another, more than 7,000 people. Another thing that the public really doesn't know is that we are also charged with providing services to disabled people 18 and above. So we're probably the largest provider of those services to the disabled, as well. But it makes great sense, because people who have those limitations are similar to what the needs of the elderly are, and there's no need to duplicate the services out in the community. It's much easier for us, because we're organized and set up to do such a thing that we also provide for them.
Signal: On a percentage basis, is our population aging?
Berens: Absolutely. I would say ... in the city of Santa Clarita and our immediate area here in the valley, the 60-and-older population is growing at a minimum, aging in place, of 1,500 people per year. That doesn't count, which I can't even begin to estimate, but it's a large amount, of our elders who are moving from other places to be near their adult children, and their adult children wanting them to come live close to be part of the extended family.
Signal: Who's a senior? What's the lowest age you serve?
Berens: We're different than most agencies, too, because virtually every program we have is intergenerational nature. And that comes with the knowledge that many of our elders are raising children, or at least they are baby-sitting and taking on those responsibilities because the cost of childcare is so high. So it's not unusual for our recreation programs say, computers or art or what have you to see three generations of the same family partaking in that service.
There are some services that are age-restricted the congregate meal program is for age 60 and older. But we do allow them to bring any younger guest that they want, after a certain time, (when) we're sure that all the seniors (who) want to be fed are fed. So we accommodate them as well.
Signal: You're over on Market Street in Newhall, actually on a section of Hart Park. Do you lease from the county?
Berens: We are given the facilities; we pay currently $1,000 a month, which is minimal in terms of all that the county provides for us. I'm sure the cost of utilities alone is $40,000 to $50,000 a year. But it's given to us on that basis, for $1,000 a month, with the knowledge that we're providing this vital service out in this area and we are the only game in town. And that's indicative by the sheer number of people we serve, more than 7,000.
Signal: The Committee on Aging was synonymous with the Senior Center for years, but now you've branched out into the housing business.
Berens: (That) was part of our strategic plan. (It) started when I first came, and fortunately with the vision of our board members, we knew that affordable housing out here was slim to none. We saw that need with our own clientele. So about seven years ago, working with a developer and by the way, we looked for about five years for the right partner for this we developed Bouquet Canyon Seniors, which is a 264-unit (apartment complex) up in Saugus. In November of (2003), we opened Canyon Country Seniors, 200 units in Canyon Country, off of Sierra Highway, and just next week we are opening one in Castaic for 150 units.
And that's important because the housing community that we're able to provide for our elders is literally hundreds of dollars below market rate. The cost of living out here is very high, so many seniors would be forced from our community, or others who want to come and live close to their children would be precluded from coming.
As an example, rent at all of these places a one-bedroom ranges from $500 to $600, and a two-bedroom ranges from $600 to $700. You see, hundreds and hundreds dollars less than what they might pay elsewhere. More important, it allows us to strategically deliver services in all of these neighborhoods, so people from the surrounding vicinities of these housing complexes can come here and access many of the same services that we have at the Senior Center.
Signal: The Committee on Aging owns, operates and staffs these properties?
Berens: We're the general managing partner. So we have a great say in how the property is run and what services we deliver to the (residents). We do hire a property management firm to run all three.
Signal: Do you own the land?
Berens: No, our partner mostly owns it. He's the for-profit side of this. We are just the general managing partner.
Signal: Define the roles, if you would.
Berens: There's obviously a for-profit person involved in this. In this case it's a man by the name of Mr. Jules Swimmer, who has been terrific for us in really having the same vision we do as to what the needs of the seniors are.
He's a specialist in tax-credit financing. Now, tax credits are given to all the various states to give out to build affordable housing, and then it's a competition every year as to who gets those moneys. It allows these low-cost loans and grants to be applied toward the construction otherwise, the construction phase of it and if the purchase of the land was not low or subsidized, we could never provide these at such low rates. It just wouldn't pencil out in terms of financial viability.
So we are the general managing partner, which under these tax-credit financing deals requires a nonprofit to be involved, where they're kind of the conscious, if you will, of the for-profit side, to make sure that these folks who are in affordable housing are getting all the services they need and that they're being advocated for. So we have a great deal of influence, if you will, on what goes on in those properties.
Signal: There was a long waiting list to get in, when you opened the Bouquet Canyon Seniors; how long is the waiting list for the new one in Castaic? Is there that kind of demand today?
Berens: There is. In fact, in Canyon Country, there are still a few units left, and surprisingly, a lot of our elders are wanting two-bedroom units. There are still a few left in Canyon Country, but most everybody now is looking toward Castaic because we have a higher volume of two-bedroom apartments up there. And because they are smaller, that often works for the folks by having when they're downsizing from a home, it is, of course, often difficult to move into an apartment. But there were more than 700 people in the lottery for Saugus (Bouquet), and there are still 300 or 400 people on the waiting list, and that's a good location because of all the amenities around the shopping and what have you.
Signal: So the people on the waiting list for Bouquet don't necessarily go automatically to Canyon Country?
Berens: Many will. Many want to go to that area just to be closer to their adult children.
Signal: Are other developers in the valley providing more affordable housing now than in the past?
Berens: No. In my opinion we are the only entity providing it right now. Southern California Presbyterian Homes did a wonderful job about 10 years ago it was Section 202 HUD housing, where fortunately for those folks ... the people (who) are able to get in there are paying just one-third of their adjusted gross income, which is not the case in our buildings. It is hundreds of dollars less.
But to my knowledge what's going on in our community right now, we are the only entity who has been providing this, and we are looking toward the Stevenson Ranch area for new possibilities, too. Again, that allows us to strategically deliver our services at all four corners of the valley, and our transportation staff ties all of these facilities together.
Signal: So after Castaic, then Stevenson Ranch.
Berens: That's what my hope is.
Signal: There are still other HUD-subsidized units in the SCV other than yours
Berens: There are. There are two, actually three. Newhall Terrace on Newhall Avenue is actually phasing that out. There are people who are still there with HUD subsidies, and there is Canterbury, which is relatively new, and then Orchard Arms, which is the large one. That is run by the county and through their auspices. And then there's another one up in the Valencia area, Valencia Villas, and that is still subsidized.
But what you're seeing and this is a phenomenon that's going on all over the country is that it's usually a 20-year commitment for these HUD facilities that are designated HUD facilities, and usually after that 20-year commitment, and especially in a community like Santa Clarita, they're going to opt out of that and go fair-market because they can get several hundred dollars more per unit. That's normally what happens, and that's what we're seeing happen now.
One of the beauties about our buildings are is that we are really one the very few who will take Section 8 certificates for those who are fortunate enough to have them. Those are certificates for vouchers that allow a person to go rent an apartment and only pay one-third of their income.
Signal: What do you think the city or county should do to better meet the demand for housing?
Berens: Frankly, I have to give a lot of credit to the city of Santa Clarita. These buildings that we've been involved in at least the two of them in Canyon Country and Saugus could not have been done without the cooperation and commitment of the city.
(For) their part, they waived a great deal of development fees. That allowed us to make the project work with the amount of money we were able to get through the tax credits. That was particularly true in Saugus and in Canyon Country, it's a credit to them with waiving of some development fees. But structuring our debt over a longer period of time where the development fees didn't have to be paid all up front, that was also a godsend.
When we got to Castaic, we were very, very fortunate to secure home funds from the county of Los Angeles that allowed us to purchase the land. So that was a savings, too, that allowed us to build up there. So they do their best when they can, and usually it's just a matter well, for us, having a track record now really helps with the tax-credit people in Sacramento and with the county, who are very familiar with our services, that allow us to move forward I think that with our track record, we can look forward to more buildings in the future.
By my estimation, we need two or three right now to fill the need, after Castaic. But on the other hand, many of our seniors out here are quite capable of paying for market rate. So, you see the very nice buildings over on Valley Street, Valley Oaks, the Willows they're always full, as well. So there is that range of socio-demographics in terms of income levels.
Signal: There has been a lot of talk in Washington this year about prescription drug costs. Everyone has an idea of how to keep them down. Earlier this year Rep. Buck McKeon and a White House official came to the Senior Center to discuss Medicare changes and the new prescription drug cards. What should seniors be doing now?
Berens: Well, let me just tell you what we are advising our 7,000-plus folks to do. The program is still in such a state of evolution and is changing constantly. Actually, we are giving them the advice to not enroll in any programs right now, kind of wait till the end of summer perhaps even after the election to see how all the dust settles.
On that note, we are actually thinking of implementing (an idea of) Dr. Gene Dorio, a medication purchasing plan from Canada, and by doing that, we are giving our seniors a full range of options by which to procure the most affordable medication.
Signal: Has your board voted to pursue it?
Berens: I have informed our board I have wanted to do it, and they have not said no. At this point, it's just bringing back the facts and how I want to set it up.
Signal: How would it work?
Berens: Well, it's really not that complicated. You make arrangements with those certain companies in Canada who specialize in sending them over.
Signal: The Senior Center would make those arrangements?
Berens: They would have the arrangements directly with us, the seniors would come through us. We would act as an agent in between them. They would pay us the money, we would send up the money, drugs would be sent back down.
Now, I have some qualms about it, and that is, of course, some of the rhetoric that goes on when they are criticizing these plans coming from Canada, and that is that the are not as heavily scrutinized or regulated as those drugs procured here in the U.S. by the FDA or what have you. And that gives me some qualms. However, I think it's still something that needs to be looked at, and Dr. Dorio and I intend to pursue that.
Signal: Does the legislation exist to enable you to do it?
Berens: No. No, but I foresee, in the foreseeable future, that that will be part of the prescription purchasing plan, that they will approve that. There's nothing criminal in the act right now, so nothing preventing us from doing it. But I believe in the near future it will be allowed and actually sanctioned.
Signal: What's on the horizon for the Committee on Aging?
Berens: We want to improve our facilities that are at Market Street. We have 700 to 800 people flowing in and out of there every day, a lot of them coming from Dial-A-Ride. Frankly, we don't have the facilities to offer all of the popular programs with enough frequency. So, one of the things we've talked to the county about, and they've given us their blessing, if we raise the money they'll allow us to make improvements to the building. Basically, that's putting 1,400 additional feet on one side. And on the other side of the building, right there on Market Street and plans have been drawn up we want to put in a courtyard and some amenities there that will serve our adult daycare population, so they have a place to go outside and engage themselves in some more activities. And then, when (a) particular program is not running, it would be open to all the seniors.
So that's one of our pursuits, and we hope the county has told us, once we get the money, they'll draw up the paperwork and we can do it. Now, we have the means, through some projects that we put together a great many years ago, the means to go ahead and do the courtyard and what have you. And I've put the city on notice that it's really the Senior Center's turn now to receive some of these (Community Development Block Grant) bricks-and-mortar funding. They did it for the Boys and Girls Club, they did it for the Child and Family (Center). All I need is $200,000 to make this certain improvement, and I fully expect the city to step up next year and take care of that.
People will say, "Why should (the city) do it for a county facility?" And the interesting thing is, 14 years ago, when I came, 40 percent of the seniors we were serving were coming from the county environs and 60 percent were coming from the city. It's more than 90 percent of the seniors we're serving now come from the city of Santa Clarita and only 10 percent from the county. So I think there's some obligation on the part of the city to go into this partnership, and of course, what's a mantra for me, if you will, is "One Valley, One Vision." We're proving that with our apartment buildings, and now they need to have this partnership and the city needs to step forward and help us to (improve) a county facility.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.